The Obama administration's National Security Adviser General James Jones told the "pro-Israel and pro-peace" Israel lobby J Street this week that America believes "Israeli security and peace are inseparable." The comment received a wild cheer, although similar comments were made during the Bush years.
The over 1500 delegates to the first J Street national conference in Washington DC -- a broad collection of Zionists, peace activists, students, anti-Zionists, pensioners and the curious -- came from around the world to engage on issues related to the Israel/Palestine conflict.
Although the organization's establishment spreads a conservative agenda -- the two state solution and pressure on Iran's suspected nuclear program -- the hard-line Zionist community attacked the group for not being sufficiently close to the government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
J Street was smeared for being disloyal, anti-Israel, pro-terrorist and pro-Palestinian. The Israeli Ambassador to America Michael Oren expressed "concerns" about unspecified "policies" of the 18-month old institution. J Street was framed as an upstart daring to challenge Israeli policies, including opposition to the December/January Gaza onslaught.
The conference had a schizophrenic, identity crisis. On the one hand, Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami clearly outlined before the event the lines his group would not cross -- a one-state solution was out of the question and withdrawing US military aid. Yet any number of sessions I attended featured concerned and dedicated Jews (with a handful of Palestinians and Arabs) challenging the tenets and morality of a Jewish state itself, the occupation of Palestinian land and the likelihood of Obama being able or willing to bring the warring parties together.
Post-Zionism was in the air, desperate to find a place in the acceptable boundaries of mainstream American Jewry. J Street may not be the space for this multi-cultural and multi-racial future to emerge. The concept of a "Jewish, democratic" state, with little discussion about the roughly 20 percent of Arabs citizens in Israel proper, permeated the official sessions across the three day event, but I heard nobody question how that outcome could satisfy non-Jews. Are they not welcome in this J Street vision and why would they want to live in a Zionist state when they are already profoundly discriminated against?
I sensed that many participants were keen to feel included in the debate, used to years of isolation in a Jewish establishment that only tolerates Zionist obedience. Stories of Gaza emerged (albeit on the sidelines), the occupation of Palestinian lands was acknowledged and the trauma of the ongoing settlement project in the West Bank was dissected. Details emerged here and there about placing faith in the Democratic Party but there seemed to be an almost unreal expectation that the Obama administration would be able to end the never-ending colonies growing like cancer across the Palestinian territories.
Virtually nothing has changed since Obama's inauguration and Palestinian lives remain tortured by checkpoints and humiliation. I saw it with my own eyes in July. Many J Street Jews were able to acknowledge the presence of an occupation -- an important step in the evolutionary process -- but with little understanding of the practical ramifications of this oppression being committed in their name and with billions of tax dollars in annual aid.
I was told by a number of sources that J Street was keen to avoid substantive discussion about Gaza and the effect of America's shunning of the democratically elected Hamas government. Democracy, claimed J Street officials, would emerge only when both Israelis and Palestinians felt comfortable trusting the other side. Such motherhood statements emerged in the 1990s during the Oslo peace process when both parties were placed on an equal playing field when, in fact, the Palestinians were under occupation.
The situation has only worsened since then. The occupation -- and its effect on young American Jewry -- is clear. Subjugating another people comes with a price but ending it requires more than tough speeches by Obama.
J Street is attempting to play the Washington game, a dangerous position to take when facts on the ground in Palestine don't gel with the concept of a "Jewish, democratic state." An unofficial bloggers' event at this week's conference, featuring writer Max Blumenthal and Mondoweiss founder Philip Weiss, allowed freer talk over the hot, Jewish issues. The small, crowded room buzzed with the opportunity to dissect the UN Goldstone report -- the only time I heard the Jewish, South African judge praised for daring to investigate gross human rights abuses in Gaza -- settlement activity on the West Bank and challenging conservative critics who only accept blind support of the Jewish state; insecurity masquerading as strength.
The J Street event was undoubtedly a watershed in the American, Jewish community. Political influence is the aim and Obama is the leader. If he fails, founder Ben-Ami couldn't tell me what would happen. "Israelis will have to decide", he said, implying that apartheid is the only alternative, a reality that exists today for millions in the West Bank and Gaza.
I arrived a cynic and left a skeptic. Social progress occurred this week and countless Jews met to respectfully engage the major issues of their lives. Even the growing boycott, divestment and boycott campaign against Israel was mentioned and analyzed. J Street must decide what it wants to be -- a wide tent that allows virtually every Jewish opinion on Israel or an orthodoxy that pushes only conventional platitudes -- but the Palestinians don't have time to wait.
Jewish angst is ultimately not enough to bring peace with justice to both Israelis and Palestinians.